Lee Hockstader on Robert F. McDonnell's successful tactics

By Lee Hockstader
Sunday, November 8, 2009

Bob McDonnell's lopsided win in Virginia's gubernatorial election was the victory of an agile, disciplined, focused and attractive Republican against an unpolished Democrat who ran a lackluster campaign. It also rewarded a shrewd judgment by McDonnell, who drew the right conclusion from the Republican defeat in the 2005 race for governor, and from a string of other GOP failures in the state -- even as party leaders drew the exact opposite lesson.

Shortly after the 2005 race, in which the GOP candidate, former state attorney general Jerry Kilgore, lost to then-Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, Republican leaders and some rank-and-file groups slammed Kilgore for his supposed squishiness on the agenda dear to the party's hard-right core: God, guns, gays and abortion.

Kilgore was hardly a centrist: He bashed gay marriage and illegal immigrants, embraced the death penalty and courted pro-life activists and gun owners. But he wasn't dogmatic enough to satisfy the red-meat appetites of some in the GOP's base, like the anti-tax Virginia Club for Growth, which attacked him for supposed feints to the middle. His own party's then-chairman, Kate Obenshain Griffin, warned the party against heeding "liberal critics" who would coax the party to abandon its "principles."

Many of the "liberal critics" Obenshain had in mind were not exactly outsiders. Some were Republican moderates, especially in Northern Virginia. Decoded, her comments were a salvo in the venomous, long-running civil war between moderates and right-wingers inside the state Republican Party.

For years the moderates had been in retreat. The party was so wedded to its bedrock base on the right that some even welcomed the alienation of respected moderates such as John Chichester, a longtime chairman of the state Senate Finance Committee, who joined Democrats in Richmond in pushing for sensible tax hikes to rescue the state's flagging fiscal health. And in picking a U.S. Senate candidate last year, the party turned its back on Tom Davis, then a pragmatic Republican congressman from Northern Virginia, even though he would have made a far tougher opponent for former governor Mark Warner, the Democratic candidate. (Warner made quick work of Republican former governor James Gilmore, a darling of the party's right wing, beating him by a margin of almost 2 to 1.)

The GOP's right-wing stalwarts rejected the advice of moderates that the party connect with suburban voters by focusing on education, transportation and health care. Ideologues to the last, they figured a smaller party grounded in "principle" would be a stronger party.

McDonnell's insight was to disregard that advice and adopt the language, priorities and style of the center-right moderates -- even though his ideological roots were farther to the right.

"Bob came to me early on and talked about the things he was most passionate about -- economic development, energy, jobs, etc.," a Northern Virginia Republican told me. "I said, 'That's how you're going to win in the urban and suburban areas -- with the issues that unite people and don't divide them -- and you need to take those social issues and put them away.' "

He didn't run away from God, guns, gays and abortion, but he didn't talk much about them, either. Rather, he kept a wonkish, cool-headed focus on improving roads (a plan full of holes, but a plan nonetheless), raising teacher pay (ditto), and creating jobs. By criticizing the Democrats' cap-and-trade climate change legislation and the card check measure to ease union organizing, he skillfully conflated growing doubts about the Obama administration's leftward tilt with his campaign's main thrust -- safeguarding jobs, attracting employers and reviving the state's economy.

McDonnell's strategic shift to the center was matched by a stylistic tilt. He refused to be drawn into the so-called birther movement's baloney, despite its appeal to large numbers of Virginia Republicans who told pollsters they didn't believe President Obama was a citizen. In fact, McDonnell was respectful, even deferential to the president, agreeing with him on backing charter schools and saying he was welcome anytime in Virginia.

The consistent, steady image that McDonnell projected was more corporate suite than partisan rally -- serious, temperate, conciliatory, restrained, pragmatic. It was a conspicuous departure from the sneering triumphalism of George Allen, the former Republican governor and U.S. senator who once told cheering Republicans he would knock the Democrats' "soft teeth down their whiny throats." And it was a far cry, too, from Gilmore's gruff, uncompromising partisanship, which excited the party base but wore thin with practically everyone else.

The payoff for McDonnell on Election Day included crushing margins in almost every part of the state. But perhaps his greatest prize was that he even eked out a narrow victory in Northern Virginia, which last backed a Republican for governor when Gilmore beat a weak Democrat in 1997 -- and which has leaned heavily to the Democrats since then.

The question for national Republicans is whether they will heed the McDonnell lesson, or be drawn instead toward the small-tent seductions of Sarah Palin.

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